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  • P D Jonson

Sunday Sanity Break, 5 January 2020 - Australia's Bushfire catastrophe

Updated: May 1, 2020

For several weeks - or is in months - bushfires have been raging in various parts of Australia. Western Australia, South Australia, New South Australia and Victoria have all suffered enormous fire damage. People have died, stock and wild animals are dead or wandering around badly burnt, farms, fences, homes, including in some small towns just about every house and shop, massive areas of farmland or state forest are still smouldering and expected to do so perhaps for months. A strong wind flipped a heavy truck over on its back, killing the driver, a volunteer firefighter. Small villages in forests are cut off and there is no power or telephone communication and for all we know large numbers of people could be dead. All this comes on top of a severe drought that helps explain why this is perhaps Australia's worst bushfire experience.

Massive efforts have been made by professional and volunteer firefighters. Ordinary people usually take the chance to get out of risky places early but some stay and fight fires. Defence personnel have been called in mainly to provide rescue services and medicine. Navy boats are taking people stranded on beaches to safe places. Yesterday the Federal government announced 3000 men and women from the army reserve have been called up to help further. Fifty professional firefighters have just arrived from the United States. Great heroism has been shown by professional and volunteer fightfighters as well as people fighting to save their houses. Many of these brave people are very short of sleep but strong winds and endogenous firestorms add to the volatility of the fires and their unpredictability.

People have been generous as well as brave, and the Victorian Premier said tonight that his team now have enough donations of food, water and clothing. Now what is needed is money, but donations are flowing in and this will continue. Controlling bushfires is a state responsibility but Australia's Prime minister has been strongly criticised for being overseas on holiday with his family when the fires began. In various ways he has been criticised, occasionally in very rude terms, for his government's apparently inept dealing with the crisis, even if it is not a Federal responsibility. The State firefighting units have worked well and are generally well provided with equipment. If Australia is not about to get a missive rain event, skilled firefighters will become less effective due to simple lack of sleep.

When the current crisis is over there will have to be a thorough post mortem and serious thought about how our governments need to do things to reduce future risks. In the time of Australia's First People, before the arrival of Europeans, it is believed that the First People practiced systematic 'cold fire' (large numbers of small fires) to keep bushland and grasslands from burning too far or too fast. In modern times this practice has been largely dropped. Houses are approved for building in heavily wooded forests and regulations prevent homeowners from cutting firebreaks including cutting down large trees. These practices will surely be cancelled and people who insist on building in places that easily become a firetrap may be told they may not be able to be helped in the next firestorm.

One of the reason the Prime minister has been heckled is that he is reluctant to agree with those who believe the main problem is 'global warming'. He will need to think carefully about this, as there is a significant group of strong 'anti-warmists' in his party. Even if one is confident there is no global warming, due to CO2 and methane in the atmosphere, Australia is a very hot place and dry when it is not experiencing flooding rains. Surely it will not be too hard for State and Commonwealth governments to introduce major changes to land management. My money would start by seeing how a modern version of 'cold burning' could be reintroduced to Australia. This would provide some very useful jobs for First People, and make the rest of us safer in our homes and beds.

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